Thursday, August 9, 2007

Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland was a pretty good movie. Generally, when I write a review or analysis or whatever you want to call it, I precede my opinion of the film with a lot of hullabaloo. Sometimes three to four paragraphs of nonsense until I finally get to the point, in this case, I thought it smart to state my opinion of the film first, and then do all the hullabaloo and caca that I like to write.

I say The Last King of Scotland was a pretty good movie because it wasn’t a bad movie, but it didn’t knock my socks off. It was an above average film, but I wasn’t blown away. It wasn’t mediocre; it was better than mediocre. It just wasn’t all that special.

Now, if you must go see this film, don’t just wear general movie socks, because like I said they won’t get knocked off. If you go into this film wearing Forest Whitaker socks, they will probably get blown off, because Forest Whitaker is an amazing actor. It’s just kind of unfortunate that the whole reason to watch this movie isn’t even the focus of the film.

The Last King of Scotland follows Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a Scot doing some volunteer medical work in Uganda at the beginning of Idi Amin’s rise to power. Garrigan and Amin cross paths and become quick friends. The gist of the rest of it is that Garrigan eventually becomes a top advisor for Amin but doesn’t realize or pay attention to the truly evil shit that Amin is involved in.

Let me tell you why I didn’t like this angle. The set-up, the process through which we must wade to get to the meat of the story, is remarkably self-aware and pedantic. I kept getting the feeling of “going through the motions” of a kid-in-over-his-head story. I was getting flashbacks of Boogie Nights, except not awesome, just kind of boring. It was like the director (Kevin Macdonald) was just nodding at us for the first hour, saying “Yea, this is all just a formality, wait ‘til we get to the good stuff.”

When we finally get our first reveal of what kind of person Idi Amin actually is, then you get the sense that the film is getting more comfortable with itself and letting things hang out a bit. What does it say about Kevin Macdonald that the films most well executed scenes involve violence, anger and torture? It was kind of like you playing with your sister. She has Barbies, and you have G.I. Joes, you just kind of humor her while she arranges the house and living area and sets up the wedding and does all the boring stuff, and you’re just waiting for the evil terrorists to come in and kidnap Barbie.

Like I said, if you really need a reason to see this movie, it would be Forest Whitaker. He plays Amin like you can really imagine he would have been. He’s this goofy, super-friendly and overly charismatic best pal to almost everyone, until he starts to lose his shit and realize that he to is in way over his head. Perhaps that's why Garrigan and Amin got along so well, neither of them had a fucking clue about what was going on. Whitaker has no problem switching between the charismatic best-friend and the lost-his-shit dictator. If that isn’t enough justification for him to have won that Academy Award, I don’t know what is.

I’m wondering how the film would have been if it ha broken its traditional lateral story telling and perhaps had broken form with an Alejandro González Iñárritu-style fractured narrative. Maybe starting at the end of the story and then peppering the film with tidbits of how they ended up there. It’s a style that’s been done, but in the right hands its done well. The Last King of Scotland could have benefited a lot from being jazzed up a bit. It could have been so much more brutal and more unflinching in its portrayal of Amin and his surroundings and not left the weight of the picture on Forest Whitakers shoulders.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Holiday

The only thing worse than a romantic comedy, is a meta-romantic comedy. The Holiday fully acknowledges its status as a romantic comedy by inserting a character who is an expert on such matters, a former Hollywood screenwriter; thus it thinks that it deserves kudos for being so brash and fun with the concept. The problem being that even a meta-romantic comedy is still a romantic comedy, so it has rules and guidelines that it must follow, no matter how “original” or “daring” it is with the concept.

The only movie I’ve ever seen that actually made the romantic comedy concept work on a level slightly higher than appealing to the viewer’s base sensibilities was Love Actually. Love Actually was comprised of a handful of stories, each one barely related to the other, kind of like You’ve Got Mail by way of Pulp Fiction. It worked because each story was short and concise and everything we needed to know about the characters was shown to us and anything else was inferred. Normally, each one of these little vignettes could have comprised an entire films worth of pandering nonsense, irrevocably ruining their concepts by adding filler like singing to a popular song of the era in which the film is made (and in turn dating the movie considerably) or perhaps dancing around candles or something. Love Actually was like a bunch of expanded trailers for a bunch of romantic comedies. Nothing was inherently different or good about the film other than its relieving concept to break up all the action between a bunch of people rather just focusing on Hugh Grant or Alan Rickman or Liam Neeson.

The real problem with The Holiday is that though it winks at the audience every once in a while, it still feels the need to jerk the audience off by including such romantic comedy mainstays like: meet-cutes, lip-synching to a popular song, dancing around a candle and/or piece of furniture, the jerk ex-boyfriend, the put upon female lead, the “breath of fresh air” male lead, montages, more meet-cutes, yet another put-upon female lead, the male lead with a secret that could prohibit him getting close with the female lead, last minute decisions that no one in their right mind would make (not giving a shit about spending tons of money on a plane ticket, then and the last second deciding you don’t want to go), oh yeah and a couple more meet-cutes for good measure.

I know, there’s a thing called suspension of disbelief. I’m supposed to go into every movie trusting that the director and/or writer of the film is God and the world they are showing us is world that exists outside of our reality. Eli Wallach plays an aging screenwriter long past his prime and he points out to a slumming-it Kate Winslet all the little things going on in her life that are just like the movies and how she could fix them, just like the movies. Cameron Diaz basically plays herself as a movie trailer editor whose life is interrupted occasionally by narration in the movie trailer guy voice. These bits are handled so poorly, it makes me think that I didn’t actually see them, and that I made them up, but they were so bad I don’t dare go back and check if they actually existed. I’m completely content with thinking they weren’t real, because that would make the movie a iota better in my mind. Like the universe that this movie is set in is one remarkably like ours except that it contains these brief quantum lapses where the collective subconscious of society simultaneously experiences these ethereal dream states and meta-interactions with our God/Creator. Hmm, maybe this movie was a little better than I thought. But no, the films director, Nancy Meyers, tries so hard to convince us that this movie is set in our world by including constant references to films we're familiar with, but its still run by the same conventions of the romantic comedy world.

A lot of people complain that movies like The Matrix and Natural Born Killers inspire kids to kill people (which they don’t, I assure you) but no one ever says anything about how movies like The Holiday and it’s bastard cousins convince people how to relate romantically to each other. Ask anyone what they’re idea of romance is and I can guarantee it’ll sound exactly like a scene from a shitty movie with Sandra Bullock and/or Hugh Grant in it. When you have this image in your mind of a Prince or Princess Charming and you convince yourself that you are going to find that one perfect person you will perpetually be disappointed because no one who fits your ideal actually exists. Love is about compromise, not compromise in the bad sense, but it is about realizing that not everyone is perfect, including yourself, and loving them for those imperfections. Imperfections are what make us unique, not all of us can be the great dad that Jude Law is, or the wonderfully random film composer that Jack Black is. We’re all who we are and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll find someone you can love.

Romantic Comedies don’t allow room for the truth, they are built upon lie after lie after lie. I’m not talking about the Hollywood “Truth” either, where in you discuss taboo topics or sweat a lot, I’m talking about the honest to goodness for real truth. There are all kinds of things wrong with The Holiday, I could devote a book to deconstructing its fallacies and ill-performed inaccuracies. If you’re going to be meta, commit to it, don’t fall into the same traps that you’re attempting to destroy.

Friday, April 20, 2007


I remember going to White Horse comics in Villa Park about 9 or 10 years ago and picking up this massive book called "300". I looked through the pages and was floored by the intense artwork it contained. Contrasted and dynamic flows of brutality that read more like the fever dreams of psychotic Greek history enthusiast than a “comic book”. But alas, it cost more money that I tended to spend those days and as I left that comic book store, so faded my memory of "300".

Fast-forward to April 2005, Sin City, an adaptation of another brilliant Frank Miller book, is released in theaters. Seeing Frank Millers style translated flawlessly to the screen was one of those benchmark moments in my life, something that I’ll never forget, and something that I’ll point to the next time someone asks me why I love movies so much. That same contrasted and dynamic style painted itself across the screen in a blaze of neo-noir glory, like a Dashiell Hammett acid flashback. In the wake of Sin City’s success a movie got greenlit based on a story I hadn’t thought about in ages, and when the first trailer was released for 300, my mind immediately flew back to the one feeling I can still remember from that day in the comic book shop so many years ago: sheer awe.

When I sat down in my seat at our local IMAX, my knees were practically shaking at the excitement. I was nervous, as most of my kind (nerds, geeks, dorks, etc. etc.) can get sometimes. We devote loads of our conscious thoughts to movies, and generally we’ll devote them to one movie in particular. Most of my waking moments prior to March 9th, 2007 had been spent thinking about that night and the opportunity I would be granted in the form of a motion picture. Were there ever a movie made that earned the title “motion picture”, 300 would certainly be it.

The first images that flashed on the screen forced back my nervousness and flew me into a state of geek nirvana. A wide-eyed smile painted itself on my face as a spear punched through the head of a wolf was painted onto the screen. I was at my church.

I mentioned 300 as being a motion picture, and I say that in its most literal context. Motion suggests movement, while a picture suggests the lack of movement, something static. Movies at their base form are a series of pictures flashed in front of your eyes, creating the illusion of movement. With 300, the audience is afforded the opportunity of absorbing every detail of the scene with the films masterful use of slow motion. Just as with a picture, photograph or painting, with 300 you are given tremendous amounts of time to scan the frame and analyze its composition.

Imagine a golden grassy field with a sun on the horizon, a rumble gets louder and over a hilltop a cadre of men on horseback slowly march towards you. A typical movie could illustrate this event in a matter of seconds. 300 makes you feel it, it makes you feel it in your bones. What do these men bring? Are they to be feared? Loved? Are they the harbingers of death and tyranny that a sovereign city-state such as Sparta was built to defend against? Anyway you slice it, when they finally arrive at the city gates, your skepticism of these strange visitors is not only heightened, but it is also felt deeper as the camera slowly pans across the denizens of Sparta.

I don’t think the point of the using of slow motion was just to make it look cool (though it certainly helps). Nor do I think it was used to bring it closer to Frank Miller’s interpretation of the story. It was used to give the audience a sense of importance, that the events happening on the screen mean something. Think about this in the context of King Leonidas, the decision he made to bring 300 of his best soldiers to defend his city against the invading Persian hordes was not as easy one. It was a decision, in fact, that based on the laws of Sparta, was entirely illegal. But based on his ideals and his personal way of life, it wasn’t that much of a decision at all. It was more of a reaction or reflex. What would you do if someone had threatened your freedom in the way the Persian messenger threatened Leonidas’? You’d fight. You’d fight for your life. So the slow motion is used to highlight scenes of great importance. The approaching Persian messenger, the bloody battles, and the finale’s spear toss. The slow motion is telling you: “Pay attention.”

The movie is all about King Leonidas and the Spartans perspective. So in that sense, the slow motion is a perfect way to show you that perspective. Now a days, we all know that Xerxes wasn’t 10 feet tall, that Rhinoceros’ and Elephants weren’t that big and that there weren’t gigantic monster men fighting for Persia, but from the perspective of the Spartans, that’s what it looked like. There was the invading mass of people that were completely and utterly foreign to them. I doubt they’d ever even seen a brown-skinned person let alone an exotic animal. In the hands of a less skilled director, this concept could have been overblown and worthy of the hysteria that it caused in Iran. If this were a Michael Bay picture, the Persians would practically be aliens driving spaceships, thankfully Zach Snyder didn’t take it quite that far. It was exotic enough with out being entirely ridiculous.

I suppose that were the audience full of a bunch of goons and lummoxes, they might take Snyder’s and Miller’s interpretation of “crazy foreigners” all too literally. But then again, I think the people who would take that seriously are also the people who think that their Judas Priest record told them to kill somebody or that video games caused Columbine. There’s a point where Hollywood should be relieved of responsibility and the actions and thought processes of individuals should be further examined, but I digress. That isn’t the point of this movie or what I’m trying to say about it. Beyond all the grandiose images and storytelling I think that there is fairly clear message to 300, one that is entirely relevant today.

Since 300 was released I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Bush and Iraq and blah blah blah. Is Bush Sparta and Iraq the Persians or vice versa? One could argue both sides. Bush equals Sparta as a triumphant display of power or Bush equals Persia as a ruthless invading horde lead by a narcissistic dictator. By making those comparison’s, I think the point is missed entirely. Whether or not the Spartans were truly “free” or even democratic, and despite the fact that Xerxes armies were generally paid, the movie didn’t portray them that way. If you’re pissed about that, then you take things too seriously. It’s a movie and a story, one that never claimed to be real or accurate.

Anyways, the movie is about freedom, and deciding what you are going to do when your freedom is threatened. Will you listen to those whose influence over you is more inspired by politics than personal choice? Or will you listen to what you know is right? In today’s world, we are being constantly told what is right and what is wrong, even if what we are being told goes against every concept of those terms that we’ve ever heard. Politicians over-speak it and the media over-reports it. As a people and society we’re full of a lot of confusion and conflicting thoughts. But each of us knows inside what is right and what is wrong. Whether it was learned from your religion, your parents or whoever else inspired you, morality is a concept that each and every one of us has a grasp of. 300 isn’t just about fighting for what you believe, it’s about making that choice. It’s about standing and watching as your freedoms and concept of what’s right being eroded away, and ultimately deciding to do something about it.

I walked away from 300 having my concept of what cinema can be blown out of the water by the thunderstorm that was that film. Not only that, but my concept of the philosophical aspect of what a film can achieve was altered as well. At its base 300 is a perfectly passable, if not immensely elegant interpretation of the action-movie historical fantasy genre. But beneath it’s sheening gloss of blood and brutality, swords and stones, I felt something slightly deeper. I’m an American through and through, I haven’t got enough of any one European ethnicity in me to claim allegiance to any other country or ethnicity. I’m what America is supposed to be, everyone and everything. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that made feel proud of being American, and in today’s political and cultural hailstorm of attacks on America’s politicians and it’s people, can you really blame me? 300 didn’t make me feel any more “American” than I had before I walked into the theater, but it did stir the pot of my appreciation of freedom and what it means to me. I appreciate the fact that I can go to the theater and watch a good film and interpret it how I choose. I appreciate that fact that my morals are my own. I know what is right and what is wrong. At the risk of sounding all “Rah-Rah! Go America!” about it, knowing that difference is what America represents to me.